Archive | January, 2015

On counting and marrying out of caste

Most measurements of caste dynamics are flawed by a lack of good numbers, but that’s a good thing.

A few months ago, my fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar had looked at how inter-caste marriages are happening in India. He had visualised the results of an interesting paper out of European Population conference hosted on the Princeton university website, which looked at how people were marrying outside their own caste. Researchers had used data from two consecutive National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), the researchers tried to identify the proportion of people who marry someone from an ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ caste, and how this varies across gender and across states.

While theirs was a valiant effort, they end up dramatically undercounting marriages outside caste, to the extent of near-complete irrelevance of the paper. This happened due the nature of the dataset. There are only four caste groupings listed in the questionnaire: General, OBC, SC and ST. Both the husband and the wife’s caste grouping is recorded, and the researchers ranked these groupings in the same order listed, and ran their comparisons.

It is obvious that this in no way comes close to what might be the true amount of cross-caste marriage taking place in India. We still have little robust evidence of whether intercaste marriage is increasing or decreasing — whether subcastes are weakening, or castes are weakening, or if they show different trends in different parts of the country. The remainder of the paper’s analysis on the correlation of intercaste marriage with education, media consumption etc can all be similarly discarded.

While we don’t know any of these (fascinating) details about caste dynamics in India with any degree of robustness, this is arguably a great thing.

What got me started on this is that the idea of marrying someone of a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ caste is not a commutative property. Think of a couple, each from two subcastes within the same caste. An external observer might classify both subcastes of being at an ‘equal’ level. However, each spouse might feel that they are marrying ‘lower’ by marrying outside their subcaste. Thus it becomes rather subjective. Further, I was curious about how many castes and subcastes got captured in the NFHS survey, given the survey’s focus on family health. The devil is in the details, and this study captures none of it.

It’s probably for the best that we don’t know exactly how caste dynamics are changing. The Indian government’s efforts at doing a caste census (and more recently, Karnataka’s interest in the same) is deeply troubling.

Counting is often political, as Deborah Stone explains in her wonderful book, Policy Paradox. Counting can affirm and reinforce certain identities over others, and can also engender a sense of common-ness among those counted and binned together. For example, the notion that 44% of India’s children are malnourished competes with the number of children who aren’t in school, or are in poverty, or the number who live in villages. While the children overlap, each label competes for mind space, and by extension, for policy prescriptions.

Deborah Stone - Counting Political

Counting caste can only strengthen it, while migration, modernity and education just may be slowly breaking them down.

One hypothesis I offer is that sub-castes were weakening in the 1980s and 1990s in some parts of India, because migration and smaller families were leading to higher search costs for arranged marriages. But with the internet and a plethora of matrimonial sites springing up in the 2000s, the search cost of someone of the same sub-caste might have dramatically reduced, strengthening castes in turn. However, the hypothesis is not testable with extant data – the flux in caste in India today remains unknown, and should probably stay that way.

PS. Chapters from Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox are essential readings in Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy programme. I will be teaching the CP101 Introductory Public Policy Analysis course for it in the February 2015 term.

PPS. Read Saurabh Chandra’s take from 2013 on weakening the mechanisms of caste.

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A Tale of Two Cities

The tale of Bangalore and Chennai’s growth is also the story of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s urbanisation.

The Indian growth story has included two actors in the past two decades, Bangalore and Chennai. Along with their parent states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, they have been the face of Indian progress, on everything from software to manufacturing to higher education.

Bangalore and Chennai are quite distinct from one another, and this post traces the differences in their urbanisation and their respective roles in their states. Chennai (formerly Madras) was designated as one of four ‘metro’ cities in India from independence, having been the capital of a British presidency before then. Bangalore was a more modest state capital. Till the mid-1980s, Bangalore was almost  two decades behind Chennai in its total population size*. Bangalore has since seen more rapid growth, and in 2011 the city was only a couple of lakh people smaller than Chennai.


It is tempting to view population growth as a competition between two cities, but cities urbanise within the context of their states. While both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are among India’s more urbanised states, but it is here that Tamil Nadu leaves Karnataka far behind. Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised large state in India, with almost half its population living in cities. For context, the Indian average of urbanisation is just one third. In Karnataka, about 38 per cent of its population lives in cities and towns.

Urbanisation and the successful movement of large numbers of people out of agriculture is key to prosperity for Indians, so it pays to examine what Tamil Nadu got right.

One feature of Tamil Nadu’s success is its lack of dependence on Chennai for all its urban growth. In 1991, Chennai was about 30 per cent of urban Tamil Nadu. The state’s largest spurt of urbanisation came between 1991 and 2001, increasing by over 10 percentage points. Most of this growth came from outside Chennai, with Chennai’s share of the state’s urban population steadily declining since 1991.


Much of the urban growth in Tamil Naducame from the reclassification of land and the setting up of town panchayats after the 74th amendment to the constitution was enacted. A lot of it also came from other large cities springing up. Today, Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy and likely Tiruppur all house million+ people each.

Karnataka’s urbanisation, on the other hand, continues to be led by Bangalore. The primacy of Bangalore in the state is paramount, with Hubli-Dharwad and Mysore having a population of barely a million each. Bangalore was over 35 per cent of urban Karnataka in 2011.

Not just that, but almost half of the urban growth in Karnataka came from Bangalore’s growth between 2001 and 2011. In comparison, only about a fifth of Tamil Nadu’s urban growth came from Chennai in the same decade.


This stark difference can perhaps be explained by extensive industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, which is conspicuous in its absence in its neighbouring state. From the city of Hosur giving competition to areas on the far side of the TN-Karnataka border to bustling ports trying to compete with Sri Lanka’s, Tamil Nadu has been more successful in providing an alternative to agriculture for large numbers of its people. Kerala’s urban spurt last decade appears to be similar, with habitations becoming larger and denser, as well as more people leaving agriculture as a profession. When and whether this can happen in Karnataka is an open question.

For now, Karnataka and its politics are still frequently dominated by agrarian concerns. The Western Ghats continue to pose a formidable barrier to the development of the state’s ports, with its largest port Mangalore competing with larger ports at Mumbai, Kochi and Goa. Connectivity – perhaps in the form of all-weather roads and tracks across the Western Ghats and high volume ports – may be just be the most potent driver of urbanisation in the state.

As the Karnataka government is trying to figure out how to split the Bangalore city corporation into more manageable pieces, more people should start reflecting on how to get more centres of urban growth going in the state.


*This is the population of the entire urban agglomeration. Since the Bangalore Municipal Corporation became the Bruhat Bangalore Municipal Corporation in 2006, all urban areas around Bangalore (with the exception of small census towns and Electronic City) have been governed under one municipal authority. Chennai, on the other hand has a metropolitan corporation that is co-terminal with the Chennai district and houses a little over half of the people in the Chennai urban agglomeration. Several other city councils and town councils govern the rest of it.

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